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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 8 - 19th Century Prose Narrative 


Bored by the celebration and observation of ordinary and commonplace reality, the French symbolists, most of whom were poets, revolted against realism and naturalism. The symbolists believed that external reality hindered man's understanding of what was really important or what was true. Dissatisfied, like the realists and naturalists, with the crass and materialistic world of the bourgeoisie, with the failed politics of Liberalism, and with the defeat of France at the hands of the Prussian army in 1871, the symbolists chose not to depict the real world but to withdraw from it in order to create a literature that acted as a barrier between themselves and society. For them, poets or writers must never state or describe clearly; they can only suggest. As Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898), French symbolist poet and founder of the movement, suggested: "To name a thing is to suppress three quarters of the enjoyment of a poem." Furthermore, Mallarmé tried "to describe, not the thing itself but the effect that it produces."

Diametrically opposed to the realists, the symbolists fostered obscurity and the invisible realm and mysteries of life by writing for an intellectual elite. They were bent on avoiding the rigors of science and cared little about social reform and justice. Instead, the symbolists believed in the reality of the deeper self, intuition, and in the supremacy of art as a path to truth and knowledge. In the twentieth century, the symbolist legacy appears in such Irish writers as William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) and James Joyce (1882-1941), and in the American poets, Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) and E.E. Cummings (1894-1962), whose sensibilities helped shape the age of modernism.


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19th Century Theatre: Toward the Modern Drama

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